National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 3, 1979-1980

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Simone Martini's St Catherine of Alexandria: 
An Orvietan Altarpiece and the 
Mystical Theology of St Bonaventure

by Joel Brink

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8

Judging from the carpentry construction of Simone's well-preserved altarpiece at Pisa (fig. 10), it is probable that the compartments of the Orvietan triptych were unified structurally by four continuous pier-shafts springing from the top of the base frame and attaching to the edges of the support between each of the compartments. The lateral shafts would have established the side frames of the altarpiece, and the colonnettes would have been inserted next to these vertical elements much as they are arranged in the Pisa polyptych and in the throne of the Palazzo Pubblico Maestà (fig. 11). The high Gothic style and lucidity that Simone Martini introduced to Tuscan altarpiece design in the early Trecento is heralded in the structure of this magnificent gilded throne. The elegant architecture of the Virgin's heavenly throne is reproduced in the carpentry of the Pisa polyptych, and surely must have characterized the general format of the master's altar paintings in Orvieto. This certainly applies to the dismantled polyptych in Boston, (13) which has lost its original frame, as well as to the Dominican altarpiece in the Orvieto cathedral museum.

The feature of the reconstructed triptych (fig. 9) that distinguishes it from other altarpieces of the period is the new pinnacle shape and its increased size and importance relative to the arcaded field below. It is feasible that this arrangement was dictated by the programmatic requirements of the Franciscan patrons, hence it is the inconographical problems posed by the painting that must be considered next.

Moving from the carpentry of the altarpiece to its iconography, one is immediately struck by the rich though virtually unexplored imagery of the central compartment in Orvieto. In no altar painting by Simone Martini are we presented with such a dogmatic, teaching type of Christ-child (fig. 12). Enthroned in his mother's arms, the young Christ looks intently at the viewer, pointing rather emphatically to a scroll with text. As if to say, "Behold these words, " Christ appears to initiate a program of meaning which extends from the text into the upper levels of the painting. The scripture inscribed on the scroll is from the Gospel of St John (XIV:6) which records Christ's famous response to the question of the Apostle Thomas during the last discourse. Thomas asks, "Lord, we don't know where you are going. So how can we know the way?" Christ answers, EGO SOM VIA VERITAS ET VITA, ("I am the way, the truth, and the life"). With his serious expression and pointing finger the Child Jesus would appear to be stressing his mission to mankind: that he is the only avenue of salvation and hence the only way to the Father in heaven. (14)

The iconography is equally interesting in the upper panels (fig. 4). Above the cornice in the pinnacle appears the Redeemer, with one hand raised in benediction and the other holding a closed book. In the smaller gabled fields are two angels each bearing specific attributes. On the left the angel, who is turning toward the Redeemer, is holding two burning candles (fig. 13), while the angel opposite is poised frontally, crowned with the laurel, and is displaying an open book with text (fig. 14). Uniting the upper and lower pictorial zones are two roundels with identical angels (figs 15 & 16): both hold a staff and golden orb, and an open, draped throne is placed before them. While each of these angels is represented with two pairs of wings, those above in the pinnacle appear to have three pairs, that on the left luminous and faintly visible, and on the right accented clearly against the gold ground with blue-grey. Similarly, the right-side angel in the pinnacle wears a type of liturgical vestment cool-blue in coloration, while that opposite is depicted with flowing drapery pink and warm in quality. The angels are each identified by partially obscured inscriptions painted in black letters: below the angels in the two roundels is inscribed TRONE (Throne), and just below the cornice on the left is written - RAP-YM (Seraphim) with CERUB-M (Cherubim) included below the angel with the open book. Between these identifications just below the Redeemer is inscribed ALPH- & O (Alpha and Omega) from the Book of Revelation. (15)

What is particularly unique about this arrangement of angels is that the Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim, which comprise the highest order of the tri-level celestial hierarchy, were rarely if ever presented together in this manner in contemporary Central Italian altarpieces. The fact that they are so meticulously distinguished from one another in pose, color, and attribute, and even identified by inscriptions, points inevitably to a specific program of religious dogma which probably included the whole three-fold angelic hierarchy in the original work of art. In this iconographical arrangement (fig. 17), the two lower choirs of an gels would have comprised the lost roundels and pinnacles of the side compartments. It is feasible that the first order including the Angels, Archangels and Principalities was situated above the Ottawa St Catherine of Alexandria, (16) and the intermediate order - the Powers, Virtues, and Dominations, -was included above the unidentified saint on the right of the altarpiece.

The primary source for all the medieval scholastics on the subject of the angels was the De Coelesti Hierarchia (The Celestial Hierarchy) written by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite about 500 A. D. (17) Scotus Eriugena compiled a Latin translation of the work from the Greek in the ninth century, and this became one of the principal sources from which the theologians of the Middle Ages obtained a knowledge of the man 's mystical doctrines. The Dionysian three-fold angelic structure derived from the idea that the further the angels were removed from their source in God the less intense was their love and knowledge of the Father. Hence the degree of illumination was not identical for each triad in the hierarchy: the highest triad of angels received its light directly from God and transmitted it, more fragmented, to the intermediate order which in turn passed it, still more diffused, to the lowest level of the hierarchy. The Dionysian schema is summarized beautifully by Dante in the twenty-eighth Canto of Paradiso, where, gazing into the eyes of Beatrice, he beholds the light of God encircled by nine radiant rings which Beatrice identifies as the three hierarchies or the nine orders of angels.

And all these orders upwards gaze with awe, 
As Downwards each prevails upon the rest, 
Whence all are drawn to God and to Him draw. 

When Dionysius with ardent zest
Pondered these orders of angelic bliss,
His named them in this way, the true and best. (18)

Next PageDionysius and scholastics

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